Robinson Cano's return vs. Reggie's: Were fans smarter in '82?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The denizens of Yankee Stadium knew where to put the blame when the great home-run artist left for Anaheim, but they seem a bit confused about where to direct their ire regarding Robinson Cano's departure.

On Tuesday night, Robinson Cano made his first visit to the Bronx as a member of the Seattle Mariners. If you spent the offseason on the International Space Station with only intermittent access to baseball news, this follows a contentious winter between the Yankees and their now-former five-time All-Star second baseman in which Cano asked for something like all the money in the world and the team countered with all the money in the world less one dollar. Deeply offended, Cano, 31, accepted a 10-year, $240 million contract offer from the Seattle Mariners.

That move on the part of M's general manager Jack Zduriencik seemed to signal the beginning of an all-in, let's-actually-go-to-the-playoffs-kids! phase on Seattle's part, but aside from adding second-tier free agents Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, the revolution petered out. So far this year, it's been the same old story: 11-14 team, not much hitting, some good pitching but probably not enough. The 116-win team of 2001 recedes further into the distance, the 93-win teams that came after also look pretty good despite their not making the playoffs, and Cano, hitting a powerless .296, is an island in the wrong ocean, a wolf inadvertently fallen into the zoo's sea cucumber tank and dog-paddling until he can figure a way out. Given the length of his contract he may be treading water for a long time.

Whenever a popular player returns to his former home, the media likes to make a big deal of it (sometimes with very funny results), and there's some large segment of fans that do too; witness the booing Cano received on Tuesday, fans chanting "You sold out!" The notion is at least 150 years out of date, but hold onto that idea since we'll get back to it momentarily.

It's fascinating how often the idea of loyalty is misdescribed as meaning, "setting aside one's self-interests out of slavish devotion to an amorphous concept that has no reason to be of any importance to you whatsoever," or "a unilateral fealty to some person or entity; it need not be reciprocated." Outside of any relationship conducted at the point of a gun or some other form of coercion, every contractual interaction between two entities (be they individuals, corporations, or a mix of the two) requires the mutual consent of both parties. I am often fascinated that a major political movement began in this country in part out of anger at people who accepted mortgages that they couldn't necessarily afford, a rage that overlooked that maybe those same people shouldn't have been approved for them either. If there was misrepresentation on one side, there was the need for due diligence on the other. In short, this was a more complex story than freeloaders and gullible lenders. The lenders had their own motives for overlooking any possible freeloading due to the exploding derivatives market, and it's not clear who was taking advantage of who. Things were offered that shouldn't have been offered, were accepted that shouldn't have been accepted, some had good intentions and some didn't. In every case, it took two to make it happen.

Baseball relationships are no different. It takes two to have a contract, or not to have any contract at all. While Cano incorrectly estimated that he was worth $300 million to the Yankees, the Yankees' reported return offer of $175 million over seven years seems inadequate given what Cano was eventually able to get. Sure, the average value of the Yankees' offer was higher, but there's $65 million, three years, and the promise of not having to go through free agency heading into your age-38 season -- a time of life at which most second basemen are pretty much dead -- missing. Now, you can argue that the Yankees drew the line in the right place, that the Yankees can afford whatever they want regardless, especially given how much else they spent this season, that Cano should have been more flexible, or that one brand or another of Greek yogurt is better than the next and you would be right, wrong, and all of the above, because both sides had a right to their evaluation.

Given that, the most fair thing for us to do might be to borrow from Shakespeare and say, "a pox on both your houses," or better yet, say nothing at all, relax, and enjoy the game. Cano's asking price was high, but that doesn't mean it was selfish or any other negative connotation one might choose to attach to it. It was simply what he wanted, and how much flexibility there was to that we will likely never know. But Cano had literal agency, the ability to control his own destiny. He could compromise, insist, or play for a dollar a day. That's a kind of freedom we should all aspire to have. As Cano said on Tuesday, sounding oddly like John Lennon, "I can't control the Yankees. I can control myself."

Interest has to be mutual, desire to compromise has to be mirrored, and unless one party is willing to capitulate, it takes two. The rest of it, that the player should have fidelity to the team, is an illusion and always has been.

Take a trip for a moment to roughly 150 years ago, that halcyon era of playing base ball, not baseball, dying from scarlet fever and smallpox or whatever phlegmy, pus-laden thing the guy next to you coughed onto the sidewalk in the immediate aftermath of the War Between the States. These were the years in which baseball transitioned from "barely organized" to "professional." Originally, if a team was called the Buffalo Bleu Cheeses, the players were from Buffalo. You might live on the same street as them, see them on religious and social occasions, and possibly be dating one of their sisters. As such, if the team's big slugger suddenly left town to play for the rival Albany Colby Jacks, you might take it personally indeed.

But from 2014, that hasn't been true for a long, long time. Baseball teams started using ringers -- that is to say paying other team's players to come to town, line up with your city's "amateur club" and act like they just happened to be there -- even as early as the 1860s. Which is to say that the idea of player-team loyalty and the "local nine" actually being local has almost always been a kind of fiction, a lie we collectively subscribe to. To quote a Jerry Seinfeld line that has been cited so often it has become a cliché, we root for laundry.

Specifically, this season Yankees fans are rooting for laundry inhabited by Jacoby Ellsbury, who "sold out" on the Red Sox; Brian McCann, who sold out on the Braves; Carlos Beltran, who sold out on the Cardinals; and Masahiro Tanaka, who sold out on Rakuten at best and an entire nation at worst.

This is, of course, all baloney. The players are workers just like the rest of us, albeit at more lucrative prices. Ever since the end of the perpetual reserve clause, they go where they can get the best deal. There are exceptions -- Dustin Pedroia opting to stay in Boston at below-market rates is one -- but that's him selling out his financial self-interest in favor of something other than "loyalty," most likely his sense of comfort and peace of mind (another kind of self-interest). Even that was only possible because the Red Sox wanted to play ball. If they had chosen not to and had instead opted to shift Xander Bogaerts to second or wait a year and bring Mookie Betts to the majors, the Red Sox would have had all of the initiative and Pedroia none.

Pedroia_helmet_medium Dustin Pedroia in a pickle. (Jared Wickerham)

There is nothing new in observing the odd tribalism that sports provokes, but in the Cano case it seems unusually odd, reflexive, and insincere. The definition of "loyal" we are dealing with here is, "Faithful to any... person or thing conceived as deserving fidelity. A loyal friend." (Definition courtesy my trusty ol' Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged.) It seems hard to believe that even the fan who considers himself more loyal to the team colors than to any individual player is truly out of love with Cano after nine years of rooting for him, and even harder to believe that they have now transferred that same feeling of intense affection to McCann after a month, or Ellsbury or any other player who came to New York for the exact same reason that Cano left it. We become like unto the stray dog or cat who adopts us because we pity it and feed it. Its affection is bought out of survival. Ours is purchased via the player accepting the franchise's money. That's how crazy we are in this whole thing: the players transfer their loyalties via the exchange of cash, we simply nod and pay higher ticket prices. Just which party to that triangle truly sold out?

The Yankees spent a quarter of a billion dollars to purchase the loyalty Cano is blamed for failing to possess. The players get the cash, the fan gets to enjoy the possibility of "The Yankees" winning, but "The Yankees" would seem to imply an organically-developed relationship developed between players and fans over a period of years, not one installed by fiat. This isn't the Yankees, it's the Rentals. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are gone and Derek Jeter will soon follow them. Once that happens, the club will have a few players with a connection to the 2009 championship -- truly the only one of the club's five championship teams since 1978 that worked according to the Steinbrennarian buy-off-the-rack plan, the one that failed every year between 1981 and 1994 and in that sense very similar to the 2014 team -- but a massive and irreversible discontinuity has already taken place. Still, puppet-like and puppyish, we behave as we are meant to.

As I said, it's nothing new, not for anyone. Cano did what he had to given an impasse with the Yankees and a better offer on the table. He did what McCann and Ellsbury did, what Andy Pettitte did in leaving after 2003, and what you or I would do in the same position. Given that, why do we have to play out the charade, acting as if we've never seen this movie before?

Reggie_medium

Reggie Jackson swings during the historic Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. (Getty Images)

Fans were once a bit more savvy about all of this. After a disappointing age-35 season in 1981, Steinbrenner allowed five-year Yankee Reggie Jackson to go to the California Angels as a free agent. The owner had acquired multiple replacements even as negotiations were ongoing. "Wow! ...That's unreal!" Jackson said when one of the moves was announced. "You want me to call the Mayflower moving man? ...I don't think it looks good for me." Everyone knew it was over and everyone knew why.

Jackson returned to New York for the first time as an Angel on April 27, 1982, according to the New York Times' Murray Chass. In the seventh inning of a rainy Bronx night, Jackson took a Ron Guidry slider and hit it against the facing of the upper deck in right field. As he ran around the bases, the crowd of approximately 35,000 launched into the familiar chant of "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" It soon changed to "Steinbrenner sucks!"

It quickly spread around the stands and thundered throughout the stadium for a couple of minutes. The fans were clearly letting Steinbrenner, who was at the game, know how they felt about his letting Jackson leave New York. ''I couldn't hear what they were saying,'' Rick Cerone said, smiling. ''What were they saying?'' Guidry admitted to hearing what they were saying. ''It's about the only fun time I had in the game,'' the pitcher said.

''Some people have a way of saying the right thing at the right time,'' Jackson said. He was right then and he would be right now as well. It wasn't "Reggie sold out." What did they know in 1982 that we don't know now?

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